This is one of those rare albums that only happens once or twice a year. Something where you just think "wow, where did this come from?". Before 2004 there was absolutely no indication that this band would ever form, even though it had been in the works for almost a good 10 years. I was lucky enough to discover Wintersun back in the summer 2004, before the album release, on a sampler with the track "Sleeping Stars". I remember thinking how is it that a band this good is completely unknown to me and that I've never heard mention of them before. I could simply not believe that this was the first album of what was virtually a solo project.
Anyway, these days Wintersun is well known in the metal community. The line-up has been augmented by Norther and Imperanon members, and there is a pretty respectable fanbase around the world. There are so many styles displayed on this album that it is no wonder that it was a ten year effort. There are also so many intricacies and small details in the music that three years later, I am still hearing small synth parts in the background on certain songs. This album has that much depth. There is such a high replay value on this album that it almost forgives the fact that the new CD has been delayed almost 2 years.
The main style of the music is fast and melodic metal with harsh vocals. But one should not that there are also excellent clean vocals, folk influences, black metal (though minimal), and progressive influences. A quick breakdown of the styles you will encounter on the tracks -
Beyond the Dark Sun - fast, aggressive, melodic
Winter Madness - fast, progressive, somewhat folky
Sleeping Stars - slow, melancholic, folky, epic
Battle Against Time - fast, aggressive, almost vikingish at times
Death and the Healing - slow, melodic, clean vocals
Starchild - progressive, technical, epic
Beautiful Death - heavy, blackened influence, ambient (ending)
Sadness and Hate - slow, folky, heavy, melodic
You only get a small sense from the above list about how varied the album truly is. One need only look at the solos in Winter Madness, Death and the Healing, and Battle Against Time to see what a great lead guitarist/soloist Jari is (the sweep picking is inhumanly clean!). The genius of his songwriting and structures are seen on songs like Sleeping Stars and Starchild, where there is a longer story told in the songs, with tons of riffs that still form a coherent song. Other songs will show off Jari's vocals, be it the cleans on Death and the Healing and Sadness and Hate, or the harsh ones in Winter Madness and Beautiful Death. It would be fair to say that this cd displays mastery of vocals and guitar work in the metal genre. Did I mention that Jari also played synth and bass in addition?
The drumming is just as fantastic. When technical skill is called for, Kai Hahto delivers on all fronts, however he also has the restraint to never let the drums get in the way, especially on slower parts. The entire kit is used on almost every song, with so many good fills to transition between riffs that the flow of the album is completely flawless. The production is also great on this album. Very clear, but now so clear that it feels sterile. It is still dirty enough to make song s like Beautiful Death work, but still clean enough to make the guitar solos sound great. Mixing is also great, as I mentioned, there are many less important melodies and lines that can be heard in the background that are not very apparent at first, but after several listens are a nice enhancement and definitely help the replay value.
The style is itself hard to describe. Think Stratovarius meets Ensiferum meets Moonsorrow meets Yngwie Malmsteen. The riffs are generally very melodic with nice harmonies and several different guitar lines. Synth plays a small role, either backing the melodies with strings and choir, or doubling the lead guitar to create a different texture. The songs tend to follow a verse and chorus structure, but on several songs the verse and chorus riff never repeat, but are one continuous melody. On others the riffs are repeated but either have variations made to them or build up so that there is always something new happening. Interestingly, the end of Sadness and Hate is also a synth medley of several melodies from throughout the CD, a very good way of ending the CD.
My pick for CD of the year 2004.